Much has been written about the sexual morality of genre romance, and particularly the sexual double standard. In historicals, the hero is a rakish Duke of Slut, the heroine a virgin, even if she’s a widow. Contemporaries follow the same pattern. Even if she’s not actually a virgin, the heroine is typically less experienced than the hero, and her experiences with sex haven’t been positive. I’m exaggerating, but not as much as I wish I were.
I don’t mind any of these scenarios–well, the virgin widow needs to die. What I object to is their ubiquity. As Dear Author’s Janet wrote, in a post which gives a great overview of “Morality and Romance,” in the genre “a woman’s romantic worth has . . . often been associated with her sexual purity.” A man’s sexual experience, on the other hand, makes him an even more valuable conquest. Recently I’ve enjoyed several historicals that challenge the conventional sexual morality of romance in refreshing ways. That they aren’t all new books suggests that romance, like the culture in general, isn’t on some straight path towards liberation but is constantly grappling with questions of sexual morality (this won’t be news to long-time readers of the genre, I’m sure). [Note: what I want to say about Joanna Chambers' The Lady's Secret requires some big spoilers, so I'm going to put that part at the end with a warning.]
Barbara Metzger, Snowdrops and Scandalbroth (1997)
In the first chapter of this traditional Regency, Courtney Choate, Viscount Chase, and his fiancée take shelter from a snowstorm in a barn. One thing leads to another . . . but not in the way a romance reader might expect. Courtney, sickened by the way his father’s philandering distressed his mother, has remained a virgin and plans to make it to his wedding “intact.” But when he tells the lovely Adelina that “We better stop while we can” (oh, romance heroes, it really is possible to stop any time), we get this delightfully role-reversed dialogue:
“You want me, don’t you?” [Adelina asked].
“Of course I do, but I can wait.”
“Till June?” was the tortured reply. “If you loved me, you’d prove it to me tonight.”
“Please, my dear, we have to be strong.”
“But why? It’s not such a big thing. I mean, it’s not as if it’s the first time or anything.”
If the enthusiastic Adelina were the hero (Adelbert?), he would soon win the virginal heroine over, give her a great orgasm, and all would be well. But she isn’t. And as you might have guessed, her lack of virginity means she isn’t the heroine, either. Metzger pokes fun at conventional gendered scripts for the “first time” here, but she also upholds the ideal of the virgin heroine. That ideal is imposed by the hero, but he holds himself to it too, with some difficulty, so I didn’t mind. (I was less impressed by the fact that when we meet Adelina again, she’s been punished for her enjoyment of sex with an unattractive older husband. And she’s gotten fat, sure mark of villainy.)
Now Courtney has a problem. He’s seen as unmanly and unmarriageable because he dumped a girl and doesn’t have a mistress. A stint in the army doesn’t help, so when, in another snowstorm, he encounters Kathlyn Partland, an orphan who has just lost her position as governess, he offers her the role of his pretend mistress. A few public appearances with her will restore his reputation for virility, and he can go courting. There’s more poking at the classic Regency rake: as every woman wants to marry one, Courtney’s friends and grandfather are relieved to find he’s sowing wild oats at last.
Eventually, Kathlyn and Courtney confront the fact that a reputation is at least as important for a spinster schoolteacher as for a debutante. Fortunately, Courtney’s in love, and even more fortunately, he’s discovered that Kathlyn is the granddaughter of a lord:
“You are a gently bred female of good family whose reputation, once besmirched, can never be restored except by the bonds of holy matrimony.”
Nice proposal, Court! The novel never quite addressed the class double standard here. Would Courtney have dared to marry Kathlyn if she were not of good family? I guess we’re supposed to think so. But this isn’t the only novel where deus ex machina aristocratic birth comes in to save the day. Snowdrops and Scandalbroth was fun, and it questions the glorification of the rake in Regency romance. But it reinscribes a lot of conventional (and conservative) views about class, sex and gender in the end.
Madeleine E. Robins, Point of Honour (2003)
Despite the blurb describing it as “an elegant Regency romance,” this is not one. I discovered it thanks to Victoria Janssen’s seductive post at Criminal Element, which described it as Regency noir detective fiction (in a slightly alternate Regency world). Robins previously wrote romance, though, and the book plays with romance elements. I loved it, but don’t expect a romance-style HEA.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.
From the novel’s first line, it’s clear we’re not in the world of Jane Austen, or of any of the Regency romance authors who claim her as inspiration. Our heroine, Sarah Tolerance, is Fallen, having eloped with her brother’s fencing master and failed to marry him. But she refuses to descend to whoredom, preferring to work as a private Inquiry Agent, protecting her right to make choices about her own body and sexuality even when her society believes she has forfeited that right. Many of the men she meets, though, assume that she is sexually available simply because she is neither a virgin nor a married woman.
One of the ironies of this novel, pointed up by the title, is that though Miss Tolerance has supposedly lost her honour/virtue/reputation (euphemisms for virginity used synonymously in Regency romance), in fact she has more honour, and is more virtuous, than many of the respectable people who employ her. Like any good noir detective, she pays a price for being an honourable person in a corrupt world, and in upholding her honour she has to reject some of the virtues associated with the typical romance heroine.
“I lost my virginity. I lost my innocence. The world seems to regard this as the same thing as honor, but I do not,” Miss Tolerance insists. And the novel, like its heroine, defines a woman’s worth the same way it defines a man’s: by the full array of her choices and actions rather than simply the sexual ones. In doing so, it defies her society, and to some extent, still, our own.
Spoilery bit on A Lady’s Secret (non spoilery comments here)
The “black moment” of this novel turns on the class difference between Nathan and Georgy (while she proves to be the legitimate daughter of an Earl, she and her brother aren’t recognized. She’s been raised by her actress mother and works in a theatre). Georgy gives herself to Nathan freely, because she loves him. Her friend Lily is appalled, arguing that taking a lover is fine for a woman like her who “wasn’t born with a reputation,” but that Georgy is a lady and has “thrown herself away,” lost her chance for marriage to a man like Nathan.
Lily accuses Nathan of ruining Georgy, but he scoffs at the idea: “Ruined her? . . . Remind me who we’re talking about, Princess Charlotte?” He suspects that the two women are trying to entrap him into marrying Georgy. In that moment, Georgy sees that Nathan doesn’t truly value her or the gift she’s given him. She isn’t worth as much as a lady. Of course, since this is a romance, Nathan recognizes his mistake and his love for Georgy (a bit quickly and easily, I thought). In true fairy-tale style, Georgy’s brother is recognized as the heir and they are able to take their place in society. As with Metzger’s book, I felt the class issues were raised–and much more forcefully here–but not fully challenged. Georgy is a “princess” so her reputation does have value. It’s neither her birth nor her virginity that Nathan values her for, in the end, but her aristocratic status does eliminate a lot of the obstacles to their marriage and threats to its long-term happiness. I admired Chamber’s book for exposing its hero’s class privilege, but the romance conventions of the ending allow him, and us, to fall comfortably back into them.